Spotlight

#BlackHistoryMonth: Jean-Michel Basquiat’s influential black idols 

 

Emerging from New York’s Lower East Side, artist Jean-Michel Basquiat shot to fame in the 1980s. Initially, he tagged derelict buildings with the pseudonym ‘SAMO’ (a shortened acronym of ‘SAMe Old shit’), but he soon catapulted himself into the elite art market, securing countless solo exhibitions around the world. A black artist of Haitian and Puerto-Rican descent in a white dominant art world, his work explored the legacy of the colonial enterprise. Frustrated by the prioritisation of white narratives, he worked tirelessly to create a new visual language rooted in black defiance, pride, and lively expression. This #BlackHistoryMonth, we explore the ways Basquiat told a story of black struggle through the black idols he invented and revered.

Muhammad Ali fights Brian London, August 6th, 1966, Public DomainMuhammad Ali fights Brian London, August 6th, 1966, Public Domain

Basquiat’s motive to accentuate black narratives stemmed from a shocking event in his childhood. Aged 8, whilst he was out playing in the street with his younger sisters, he was struck by a car. He suffered severe internal injuries and his spleen had to be removed. Whilst he recuperated in hospital, his mother gave him a copy of the illustrated medical book Gray’s Anatomy. The experience had a profound effect on him. Fascinated by the book’s anatomical drawings yet infuriated by the complete absence of black people, he took matters into his own hands. From then on, his art attempted to halt the marginalisation of black perspectives. 

Cassius Clay, 1982’ (pictured below) is an excellent example of his ambitions. Growing up, Basquiat watched Cassius Clay (a.k.a. Muhammad Ali, 1942–2016) on television. Attracted to the dogged spirit of a boxer – a determined individual who could take punches for a living but keep on fighting – Basquiat used his art to show his admiration for the African American athlete; both in his naming of him and his positioning of him centre stage, fearless and composed on his canvas.

Whilst he recognised African American boxers as strong figures, Basquiat also identified their vulnerabilities. ‘St. Joe Louis, surrounded by Snakes 1982’ (pictured above) uses acrylic, oil stick and collage on canvas to depict the eponymous boxer (pictured below). Joe St. Louis (1914–1981) held the longest reign as champion of any heavyweight boxer and was the first African American to achieve nation-wide status as a hero when he won the World Heavyweight crown in 1937.

Seated in the middle of the canvas, the thorny-halo-crowned boxer appears to rest in between rounds as menacing white figures with wide eyes and jagged teeth lure behind him. Saint-like and stoic, St Louis is a sitting duck as his managerial team, the ‘snakes’, close in on him, intent on cashing in on his commercial success. Sadly, Joe St. Louis’ career ended in ruin. Forced to pay back millions of dollars of taxes, he suffered from drug addiction, mental breakdown and eventually complete financial ruin. Basquiat’s painting is a tribute to the forgotten hero; a metaphor for how talented black people – like Basquiat himself – are exploited by the establishment. 

Joe Louis by van Vechten and Joe Louis and Spirit of Youth director Harry L. Fraser, Public DomainJoe Louis by van Vechten and Joe Louis and Spirit of Youth director Harry L. Fraser, Public Domain

Basquiat also held a deep admiration for the boxer Sugar Ray Robinson (1921–1989, pictured below). Robinson was one of the most celebrated figures in boxing between 1940 and 1965. Though he was decorated with medals from five weight divisions, his life away from the ring wasn’t as sweet. Notorious for his excessive drinking, reckless spending, and ruckus escapades at Harlem’s Cotton Club, his life achievements and his lifestyle appealed to then twenty-two-year-old Basquiat.

Sugar Ray Robinson held aloft by boxers, 1965, Public DomainSugar Ray Robinson held aloft by boxers, 1965, Public Domain

Though Robinson's downfall was rapid, his achievements were celebrated widely during his lifetime. Basquiat paid homage to him by marking his painting ‘Untitled, Sugar Ray Robinson, 1982’ (pictured below) with his name in striking slanted capitals and adorning his crudely-drawn face with the silhouette of a crown. A symbol of power and prestige, the crown acts as an honorific denied to him by the white-dominant cultural mainstream. With so few visual elements emerging from the entirely black canvas, the message is deliberate and precise. Basquiat signals that the African American boxer is a figure of status and legitimacy.

Untitled (Sugar Ray Robinson), 1982, Jean-Michel BasquiatUntitled (Sugar Ray Robinson), 1982, Jean-Michel Basquiat

Self Portrait, 1981, by Jean-Michel BasquiatSelf Portrait, 1981, by Jean-Michel Basquiat

Basquiat also infused his work with the spirit and energy of jazz musicians he admired. Spread across three hinged wooden panels, ‘Self Portrait, 1981’ (pictured above) features two black silhouettes. The silhouette on the right-hand panel overlaps a sheet of song titles taken from Thelonious Monk’s ‘Blue Note Sessions’. Repeated in a square formation on the left-hand panel is the name of the jazz tenor saxophonist, Ben Webster. Placing himself in the lineage of these jazz giants, Basquiat hints at the limited recognition of the achievements of black artists more widely. 

Portrait of Thelonious Monk, Minton's Playhouse, New York, c.1947, and Jazz tenor saxophonist Ben Webster at Famous Door, New York, c. 1947, photos by William P. Gottlieb, Public DomainPortrait of Thelonious Monk, Minton's Playhouse, New York, c.1947, and Jazz tenor saxophonist Ben Webster at Famous Door, New York, c. 1947, photos by William P. Gottlieb, Public Domain

In addition to putting his black idols on pedestals, Basquiat also attempted to create new ones. Representations of empowered black people depicted in his paintings intended to inspire and move viewers in elite galleries to question culturally ingrained racism. Positioning a black policeman at the centre of this painting ‘Irony of Negro Policemen, 1981’, (pictured below) Basquiat used acrylics and crayons to accentuate the paradox of a black policeman supporting the work of an oppressive and white dominant policing system that disproportionately enslaved African American citizens in its penitentiary systems.

Between 1979 and 1990, the number of African Americans as a percentage of all persons admitted to state and federal prisons increased from 39 to 53 percent. In response to this, ‘Irony of Negro Policemen, 1981’ offers a dual message both about black struggle and empowerment. In the bottom right of the canvas, Basquiat adds the word ‘pawn’ to suggest the policeman is a puppet manipulated for a white agenda. However, since the policeman covers the majority of the canvas, Basquiat also creates a black figure that is imposing, self-confident, and a force to be reckoned with in adversity. 

Untitled (Red Warrior), 1982Untitled (Red Warrior), 1982

This theme of defiance is also evident in his 1982 painting ‘Untitled (Red Warrior), 1982’. With its bold white lines that delineate the internal structure of a muscular black figure, influences of Gray’s Anatomy Anatomy are discernible. Basquiat also alludes to his own Haitian-Puerto heritage by giving his warrior a black tribal mask. The white background he emerges from symbolises the white dominated art industry, and flecks of red paint around the canvas hint at bloodshed.

Unsettled by the art market’s manipulation of his own commercial success, Basquiat would have found it bittersweet to know that ‘Untitled (Red Warrior), 1982’ went under the hammer at Sotheby's in Hong Kong in October 2021, fetching 15 million dollars. Other paintings have fetched even higher sums. In 2017, ‘Untitled 1982’, sold for an eye-watering 110.5 USD.

Obnoxious Liberals, 1982, by Jean-Michel Basquiat Obnoxious Liberals, 1982, by Jean-Michel Basquiat

Basquiat enjoyed international commercial success early on in his career. Aged just twenty-two, he became the youngest artist to be invited to Documenta 7 in Kassel. His experience with rich collectors made him an outspoken critic of the very people who bought his art. As his success grew, his paintings became more political. ‘Obnoxious Liberals, 1982’ (pictured above) creates conversations about capitalist society and the ways it is engineered to exploit African Americans. With its busy composition, the painting has been compared to Picasso’s Guernica (1937) which also portrays the atrocities perpetrated on helpless victims by authoritarian figures.

Basquiat’s own hellish scene which depicts a series of three figures representing different sections of society is semi-autobiographical. On the left hand side, a distressed and chained black victim is depicted in a cage reminiscent of the slave trade. Owing to his own stormy relationship with rich collectors, critics have suggested the figure symbolised Basquiat himself. The central figure flails their arms and the words ‘Not for Sale’ are emblazoned on their chest. The final figure – represented by dollar signs and a cowboy hat – symbolises greedy white art collectors Basquiat detested. Far from being a painting about surrender, ‘Obnoxious Liberals, 1982’ is a painting about accountability: forcing the white elite art market to reflect upon its avaricious actions.

'Now's the Time', 1985, by Jean-Michel Basquiat, Portrait of Charlie Parker, Carnegie Hall, New York, c. 1947, by William P. Gottlieb'Now's the Time', 1985, by Jean-Michel Basquiat, Portrait of Charlie Parker, Carnegie Hall, New York, c. 1947, by William P. Gottlieb

Painted just three years before Basquiat’s untimely death, ‘Now’s the Time’ is a tribute to the legendary bebop saxophonist and composer Charlie Parker’s (1920–1955) album of the same name (pictured above). Parker was the most influential and prolific musician of the bebop era, releasing more than 130 albums before his death in 1955 (caused by advanced cirrhosis of the liver, heroin addiction, and excessive drinking).

Cut from a large plywood disc, ‘Now’s the Time’ mimics a 45 vinyl pressing of Parker’s album. Critics have made parallels with Parker’s fast spontaneous jazz and Basquiat’s own style of composition. However, it is interesting that this sobering piece abstains from the Basquiat’s signature expressionist fury. Instead it poignantly distills its message with a simple black and white colour palette. Importantly, the quoted text also alluded to another figure admired by Basquiat: Martin Luther King. In his epic speech ‘I Have a Dream’, Martin Luther King repeated the phrase: ‘Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all...’ 

With exclusive rights from the © Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat licensed by Artestar in New York, were honoured to produce a collection of his remarkable work as fine art prints.

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